F9 opens on a racetrack in 1989, right before what will become the defining incident in the life of glowering hero Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) — the death of his father, who’s one of the drivers competing, in a fiery crash. This incident, a footnote of an origin story mentioned in the first The Fast and the Furious 20 years ago, might come as news to anyone who arrived later to the mammoth franchise and developed the entirely reasonable impression that it’s about indestructible globe-trotting agents of some sort who fight tanks and jump cars through skyscrapers in Dubai. The last one, The Fate of the Furious, ended with the characters facing down a nuclear submarine on ice plains in the Barents Sea. Despite this, it was not very good, having been made under the mistaken assumption that the excess is key to these movies when, in fact, the earnestness is. To watch director Justin Lin, who returned for F9 and the two subsequent films that will close the series out, wind things back to the start is to feel blessed relief that this improbably good gearhead daddy-issues opera may very well stick its landing.
If audiences have forgotten that the Fast & Furiouses began as the story of a guy who got into illicit street racing after getting banned from the legal kind after almost killing the guy who caused the crash that killed his father, the films themselves have not. They never forget anything, which is their most enduring quality. They’re like a writing exercise in which anything may be possible — F9 goes to outer space — but only if it’s then fit into the overall emotional continuity, which is why, when in the last installment Dom’s crew joined forces with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a man responsible for murdering one of their own, Han (Sung Kang), it felt like a betrayal. What happens to these characters may be ridiculous, but their reactions have always been consistent, and when the new film blessedly returns Han from the dead through an act of deus ex retconning, the satisfaction of the scene comes not from the explanation but the way the other characters’ reactions to seeing him are calibrated based on how far back they went with him.
When Dom sprouts an estranged younger brother named Jakob (John Cena) in F9, the film doesn’t blink at the fact that he’s never been mentioned before — enough that he has the Toretto scowl and automotive superpowers, and that Mia (Jordana Brewster) is positioned as the sibling who got caught between them. Jakob is a “spy,” which is the word the series has settled on for the international antics it’s now committed to, and he’s working with Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen), a dictator’s brat, to retrieve a MacGuffin of mass destruction. The plan, which doesn’t need to and probably can’t be understood, involves Charlize Theron’s super-hacker character Cipher, though the series still has no idea what to do with her. Its focus is instead on how Jakob complicates the idealized concept of family that Dom has always espoused, revealing in a series of flashbacks that there was more to what happened than Dom was aware of.
Diesel is not a great actor, but he’s got certain qualities that, in the right context, are just as good — like the inexorable gravity of a neutron star and the ability to project a whole range of emotions through a glare that doesn’t ever really change. F9 pushes his appeal to its limits by being as much about Dom’s internal journey as his ability to swing his car on a rope across a canyon as though it were a two-ton Tarzan. It works, because of Lin’s understanding that something silly can also have grandeur. Whether Diesel also grasps this has never been clear, but he certainly embodies it. In one scene, he has a near-death experience in which he travels back through memories he suppressed (Vinnie Bennett and Finn Cole play the young versions of Dom and Jakob), ones that suggest his much-lamented parent wasn’t as flawless as he’s chosen to believe. Then he seems to witness something he couldn’t have seen in person, because what are the rules of time and space to Dominic Toretto?
The moment he broke with his brother involved, of course, a street race with the highest of stakes, and as his older self stands on the bridge, watching the speeding cars pass him by, this saga of families of choice feels like it’s hitting its perfect, pulpy refrain. It’s about characters trying to figure out how to be good men, letting go of the baggage of bad dads and impossible ghosts (and inexplicably absent moms; where did all the moms go?). The answer, in the series, is that inevitably one becomes better by committing to and taking care of others — that expansive but demanding idea of family endures. And in F9, that emotional substance gives the accompanying ridiculousness a bit of strange grace. When the forever bickering Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) find themselves in a Pontiac Fiero that’s been strapped to a rocket and pointed toward orbit, the characters themselves talk about how absurd what’s happening is. A lot of this movie is absurd — the shameless product placement, the guileless self-regard of its star, and the imaginative but highly unscientific use of magnets in some escalating action sequences. But when the pair are finally up there, the first shot is a lovely one of the Earth reflecting off their makeshift helmets, behind which are their awestruck faces. Who would have ever guessed, two decades ago, that this is where we’d end up? You have to laugh at the daring, and at the sheer joy of it all.
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